Tie goes to the runner?

June 25, 2012

Yesterday at the women’s 100 meter finals of U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon, Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh did something that was apparently unprecedented: they finished tied for third place.

Photo finish (Image from the NYT)

Usually, third place doesn’t mean much, but in this case it determines who gets to join the first and second place runners representing the U.S. in the 100 meter races during the London Olympics later this Summer.

Beyond the fact that it’s pretty amazing that cameras shooting 3000 frames per second (!) could not determine a winner, the craziest part of the story is that neither U.S.A. Track & Field (USATF) nor the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) – the two organizations in charge of managing the Olympic team selection process – had a plan in place for determining what happens next.

As a result, the USATF issued a statement yesterday evening revealing a remarkable decision: either the runners will race again in a literal run-off or there will be a coin toss.

The details of the procedure are somewhat complicated, leaving the runners with some say in the choice of which process will be used to break the tie. Basically, if neither one concedes the spot on the team outright, they can pick with method they prefer. If they both choose the same method, either procedure can be used, but if they choose different methods, there will be a run-off. If they both refuse to declare a preference, then the coin toss will determine who goes to London.

I’m entranced by all this because it’s such a classic example of how tie-breaking procedures often involve the explicit introduction of randomness into athletic competition and how that randomness contradicts many competitors’ and fans’ sense of fairness.

As anyone who has seen or read Moneyball can hopefully tell you by now, games are, by their nature, unfair and true randomness is a myth. However, part of the reason sports make such wonderful and compelling entertainment is that they involve a delicate counterpoint of meritocratic competition and stochastic noise. The distribution of resources among athletes and teams – such as money, skill, training, or equipment – determine the most likely winner in any contest, but so long as these variables are held relatively constant, upsets happen often enough and unpredictably enough that it’s still worth playing and watching the game.

Tie-break procedures can be controversial and unsatisfying because they change the rules in the interest of achieving something like a timely and fair resolution (case in point: the completely bizarro “Kansas Playoff” method the NCAA has used to settle ties in college football games since 1996). Often, this is done by introducing additional randomness through procedures like coin tosses. While this makes sense from a fairness perspective (given that the competitors have demonstrated that they are evenly matched by the time a tie-break is required) the use of coins or other transparently random methods to facilitate tie-breaking contradicts a widely held gut feeling that the outcome should be determined on the field of competition.

Ato Boldon, a former Olympic sprinter and now television commentator, captured this sentiment in his response (quoted in the NY Times story) to the Felix-Tamroh tie, “It’s like a penalty shootout in soccer: nobody wants it to be that way, but at least it’s still soccer.”

The obvious flaw in this reasoning is that coin flips and other truly random processes are far and away the most fair way to determine a winner when a race or a game ends in a tie! Penalty kicks, swim-offs, run-offs, Kansas playoffs, and whatever other overtime processes athletic administrators can dream up are, like all the games humans play, unfair at many levels.

Nevertheless, a coin flip at the end of a race or a game feels like a cheap deus ex machinaThe fact that most of us instinctively dislike the idea of using stochastic processes alone to settle a tie illustrates one of the ways in which we prefer athletic contests to be more like good theatre than anything else.

So, despite the fact that it probably isn’t really fair to either runner (and that their decisions may hinge on whether either or both of them manage to qualify in the 200 meters later this week), I hope Felix and Tamroh race again.

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Pride Parade, San Francisco 2012. Photo by torbakhopper.

This week’s edition of “Five Things” is brought to you by the letter Q and all the colors of the rainbow! That’s right, it’s pride week in San Francsico and the city has been celebrating in its usual colorful, costumed, semi-clothed and totally fabulous fashion. So put on your hottest, tightest, most colorful dancing socks, and away we go!

  • According to this fascinating article by David H. Freedman in the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly, the no-longer-so-notorious behavioral theories of B.F. Skinner are alive and well in the growing field of mobile health and dieting applications development. The article is well-written and raises a bunch of questions about everything from scientific ethics to the politics of technology to agency and theories of progress and well-being.
  • For you current or aspiring R users out there, I just came across this Cookbook for R by Winston Chang. It has some excellent code examples. Also, in the course of refining some figures for a paper earlier this week, I discovered that Hadley Wickham recently made some significant updates to ggplot2 and has released new documentation for the package.
  • Amara, a.k.a. the program-formerly-known-as Universal Subtitles is an awesome piece of free (as in freedom and beer) subtitling and transcription software. I’ve been tinkering with it over the past few weeks in an effort to help design a system for crowdsourced video transcription and while it isn’t quite optimized for that purpose just yet, it seems terrific and I hope to find more reasons to use it soon.

This post marks the latest installment of Mako’s (and, to a lesser extent, my) ongoing series on cliches in academic paper titles.

My selections this time around all incorporate the phrase “old wine in new bottles.” By the numbers, this phrase may not blow away the Iron Laws, Manhattan Projects, invisible hands, frailties, and tangos of the world, but it nonetheless seems to push authors to comparably dizzying heights of rhetorical inspiration.

My favorite examples all share a little bit of extra oenological boldness – instead of merely tacking the phrase “old wine in new bottles” onto a given topic (there are, literally, thousands of paper titles following that model), these authors take the liberty of ever-so-slightly altering the formula. The result is more than just old wine in new bottles – maybe “old wine in slightly cracked, twisted, and re-labeled bottles,” ….or something like that.
Without further ado, here we go:

Old Wine, Cracked Bottle?
New Bottles, Old Wine: Communicative Language Teaching in China
Pervcutaneous absorption after twenty-five years: or “old wine in new wineskins”
Carbon-motivated Border Tax Adjustments: Old Wine in Green Bottles?
Self-efficacy and expectancy: Old wine with new labels
Old wine in new bottles, or a new vintage?
Old wine in new bottles tastes better: A case study of TQM implementation in the IRS
Old wine or warm beer: Target-specific sentiment analysis of adjectives
The “new” growth theory: Old wine in new goatskins (!)
Coal tar therapy in paimiplantar psoriasis: old wine in an old bottle?
New Wine: The Cultural Shaping of Japanese Christianity
Old wine, new ethnographic lexicography
Territorial cohesion: Old (French) wine in new bottles?
Old Wine in Old Bottles–The Renaissance of the Contract Clause
New Wine Bursting from Old Bottles: Collaborative Internet Art, Joint Works, and Entrepreneurship
Cybercrimes: New wine, no bottles
Migration, dependency and inequality in the Pacific: Old wine in bigger bottles?

The intrepid Dan Jones has taken the bait.

 

Brian Urlacher rushes the President. A Remix by Dan Jones.

 

Obama goes deep at Soldier Field in Chicago during the recent NATO summit.

While checking out the White House photo stream on Flickr recently I noticed some confusing inconsistencies in the licensing terms that illustrate (TK – FIX: competing institutional logics at work in copyright, remix, public relations within the state, and the public nature of government resources).

If you look at any photo uploaded by the White House account (such as the one of the President, above) , you can see that Flickr has enabled a special “United States Government Work” license. When you click through to read the license terms on USA.gov, here’s the text that shows up (emphasis added):

A United States government work is prepared by an officer or employee of the United States government as part of that person’s official duties. It is not subject to copyright in the United States and there are no copyright restrictions on reproduction, derivative works, distribution, performance, or display of the work. Anyone may, without restriction under U.S. copyright laws: reproduce the work in print or digital form; create derivative works; perform the work publicly; display the work; distribute copies or digitally transfer the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending.

Now, that’s all well and good, except that directly underneath every Flickr photo, the staffers who maintain the White House account have also include the following disclaimer (again, the emphasis is mine):

This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

At first I thought I must have misread one of the two texts. How could the innocuous looking disclaimer pasted beneath every uploaded photo contradict the licensing terms so directly? The seemingly ad-hoc notice on the Flickr page expressly prohibits any “manipulation” of the images, whereas the government works license text on USA.gov makes equally clear allowances for the creation of derivative works.

I may not be a lawyer, but it didn’t seem that such a glaring contradiction made sense – even within the twisted logic of U.S. Intellectual Property law.

A little bit of asking around on Berkman Center email lists led to two suggested interpretations (which I will probably mangle since I do not fully understand the legal nuances involved). The first was that the disclaimer text was attempting to assert a contractual claim to which I, or anyone who viewed or downloaded a photo from the White House Flickr stream, implicitly consented, independent of the particular copyright terms attached to government works.

The alternative argument was that the contradiction might have resulted from White House public relations staff attempting to assert control over the images without fully understanding the legal implications of their words.

No matter which version is more accurate (and they may both be partially true), the bottom line is that I’m not sure it’s a good idea to paste Brian Urlacher into the picture with President Obama (despite the fact that it would look pretty awesome).

Brian Urlacher in a Chicago photoshoot. Pavel Trebukov (cc-by-nc-sa)

I am curious to hear what other lawyers and non-lawyers think of this. Independent of what legal reasoning anybody finds convincing, I consider the fact that the White House releases these uncopyrightable photos in an online venue like Flickr to imply that the images are there to be downloaded, recontextualized, and remixed. As a result, I would prefer to see the White House remove the disclaimer that contradicts this intuitive interpretation that also happens to be consistent with the spirit of the government works license.